Electrickery and the decline of Print? Future resources in e-research

Dave Evans

This is a brief look at how methods of researching are changing with the upward spiral of new technology. It was written nearly a year ago, and is already severely out of date in places; which just highlights the speed of change. It was originally a piece of MA coursework, hence the academic layout and phrasing, although a few changes have been made here and there, and it's been heavily edited. The phrase 'early modern' is used because historians don't like to say 'mediaeval' for some reason… maybe they get paid by the word.

It has particular resonance for me now as occulte-books are about to e-publish me for the first time: and it's my first publication of any kind if you discount some stuff for a printed music fanzine a couple of aeons ago and an online psychology piece on my own website. My MA thesis on Crowley and Western magic in the 20th Century is about to be published. I'm not going to say "buy this book, everyone", but if it's an area of interest to you then you could do much worse with your three quid or whatever it costs. Pretty good value for the results of a year's bloody hard work, and of course some of that money keeps this site going, complete with all the free articles, and it also keeps the Mouse spinning.

It would be helpful if you have read Ramsey's short piece 'Technology Future Shock' first, as a counter view. My essay gives a slightly more rosy view of what the internet could do for us. Whether such optimism is justified remains to be seen, and Ramsay works considerably closer to the sharp end of IT than I ever have, so is more likely to be right… But Hope springs e-ternal

Key Terms
Since this developing field gives rise to a whole new language, some terms and abbreviations used in this essay are described here:

e-book :digital book Computer-based text
Analogue/traditional book : The conventional printed and bound physically-existing book
CD (compact disc) :Used to store digital computer data such as text, images etc
IT Generic term for Information Technology, computer technology
Internet, web, the net : The world-wide web connection of computers
Hyperlink Text : on computer which, when activated, takes the reader to a linked piece of text or an associated website; an active cross-reference
Download To :take something from the internet to your own computer
Upload To : transmit something from your computer to the internet

The prefix e- refers to computerised performance of an older physical process, such as e-publishing, which may use similar terminology and procedures as publishing but may produce no physical copies of a book or magazine

This essay briefly discusses the evolving demands on historical methodology following the advent of the Internet and e-publishing, and argues that it is no longer true that history, or indeed any other subject, can be effective, inclusive and comprehensive using solely analogue research materials and methods. Although a history essay, the points made will relate to many other fields which were previously analogue-based.

To illustrate the versatility of e-sources I have deliberately produced this essay using minimal analogue materials and some highly eclectic e-sources; many of which are quite volatile: I've checked these links in April 2002 and removed any which were no longer leading to the correct source, but in time many of those left here will become invalid. Some of the links to news stories may require that you are a subscriber to the New York Times website; which is itself an interesting thing to have; as to us Europeans it gives a good idea of what Americans are reading, and thus may be thinking. If you don't wish to subscribe it doesn't detract from reading this article.

The only completely necessary involvement of paper in the process was printing of hard copy for academic marking, and this only due to my University's own rules; I could easily have submitted by email or on disc. Recent developments in American academia point towards entirely e-submission in future e.g. : students of University of Austin, Texas choose between "submitting one paper copy and one electronic copy, or submitting two copies in electronic form" of their work, with a 'paperless university' being a real possibility.

I also copied the university version of this essay onto an accompanying disk for submission; with the Internet references given as activated hyperlinks. This illustrates possible advances in e-texts; i.e. a recent plan is to hyperlink all published science journals together, so that every piece of research is connected to everything else it cites, via one mouse click to produce a meta-library open to all, which was once the stuff of science fiction- but witness the occult e-books site: recent articles are full of links to relevant resources.

In early-modern Europe the advent of the first printing presses drove a communications revolution (i.e. Guttenberg, Caxton) and a correlated rise in literacy via Protestant emphasis on scriptural study. Books continued to be printed and read in increasing numbers for the next few centuries. Then the new computer science led to a fledgling international network using telephone lines. This became the Internet. Brief version of a long story there…

Spread: the net is everywhere
The rise in prominence of the Internet and e-texts seems a more monumental change in access to texts (and how we interact with them, computer literacy being a whole new language skill to learn) than the first print explosion. The content of net e-texts is radically more diverse than Christian texts of the early modern period. All religions, cultures, languages and political persuasions reside on the net, along with innumerable other topics; fact and fiction.

Every form of text is available on the Internet, or digitally stored, e.g. on compact discs (CDs). The Internet is accessible from New York City to remote Nepalese hill villages, and in richer countries net use is pretty much the norm. Thus any e-text is potentially available to all, and researchers do not have to be physically within the world's best universities, archives and libraries in order to make an impact in their field. One example: records for the Ellis Island immigration terminal, where millions of early US immigrants disembarked to begin a new life are now on the internet. Formerly they were only accessible to a few personal visitors; but in the first 3 days online, over 26 million enquirers used the website to research their family histories; roughly equivalent to the population of London all using that one archive every day, something which would be physically impossible to do in person.

The internet also allows greater access to analogue books, via access to e-catalogues of physical libraries. Using the internet, readers can locate books, and then travel to view them. Sourcing these items without the Internet would either be impossible, or a convoluted process taking years of speculative postal letters to libraries all over the world.

Supply : print industry versus e-publishing
Once an author has made it over the hurdles of commissioning editors and the sketchy finances and politics of the book world, analogue publication requires bulk long-distance transport of raw materials to paper and ink factories, then delivery of ink and paper to printers, then final dispatch of the book, magazine etc to retailers. Once the analogue supply has sold out, the expensive and often lengthy process has to be repeated if more copies are needed. By contrast, one very basic computer and a telephone connection, with no need for heavy machinery, raw materials or a transport infrastructure, can be used to e-publish on the internet in minutes, with a potential readership of billions.

Repeat print runs are unnecessary, since the original can be multiply reproduced, for so long as the technology exists. And it's more eco-conscious: no trees die if the book is always read on-screen. Unlike analogue books there is no pulping of unsold copies; and while shelf space in bookshops is finite, and a place on the shelf often depends on commercial politics, net bandwidth and web space is ever increasing. There is room for everything. Bandwidth can be seen as a metaphorical "shop doorway". In the real world only a certain number of people can physically enter a bookshop at once; but on the internet the numbers of simultaneous browsers is virtually unlimited. Webspace is the physical computer disk on which a book is stored, ready to be accessed by web users; this too is ever-increasing; like an almost infinite length bookshelf in a physical shop.

Self: A first-hand example of e-publishing.
In 1995 a close friend had just completed a book on practical occultism, which was offered to 45 UK publishers. This proved discouraging, but there was interest from three companies, including one which the parent company of then advanced the author Jeffrey Archer around £12 million; meaning no new works could be commissioned at that time. There was considerable mirth in this quarter when Archer subsequently went to jail for a goodly stretch. Over the next few years my friend made many further unproductive enquiries to publishers.

I learned the basics of web page design, and in 1999 his book was e-published at a cost of around £1 UK in telephone bills to upload it. Ultimately failing to analogue publish had cost him over £100 UK in paper, print cartridges, stationery and stamps for mailshots. He receives no money for placing the book on the net, but had he found an analogue publisher it is unlikely that payment would be high in a minority interest area, and rapid, high-volume sales, i.e. justifying large fees, were unlikely. The satisfaction of seeing his book on the net compensates any potential financial loss, and he will not hesitate to e-publish again, as the book has gone 'international' (albeit on a small scale) with feedback from readers in Australia, South Africa, America and Europe. However, finance is vital for career authors. 'Free of charge' e-books make little immediate commercial sense. The goal of e-publishers is to build and hold a readership until truly commercial, paid publishing on the Internet can evolve.

This highlights a quality and quantity issue. Book publishers are not charities (apart from religious organizations who are in publishing for different reasons anyhow) and often decline publication if there may be slow or uncertain returns, or if the text is simply poor. However with self e-publishing; peer review or the hand of an editor can be sidestepped. Hence, subjectively, there is a lot of waffle and rubbish on the net.

Styles: erosion of individuality on the net
Computer software can lead to a homogenisation of writing style. This occurs especially with the hegemony of Americanisation via use of spell, style and grammar-checking programs (generally based on US English). While making a text coherent for the widest possible audience, something like Microsoft Word can cause loss of 'flavour' of speech in dialects and personal phraseology- for example, my spellchecker really disliked all of the above words ending in -isation, wanting to put a Z in there…

Thus information about the writer's own education, grammar and consequent clues about class, age etc., may vanish, with detrimental impact on research methods. Textual and content analyses, such as those outlined in Krippendorff's 'Content Analysis' ( Beverley Hills; California: Sage. 1980) are specialised pseudo-scientific disciplines, and anyone using these methods on e-texts may be handicapped or seriously misled by this homogeneity. For example; enforced spell- and grammar checkers, had they been available at the time, may have altered the work of Mark Twain, James Joyce or Ezra Pound; writers in highly unorthodox styles, whose works are hailed as important and influential. A spellchecker randomly deployed on James Joyce wreaks real bloody havoc:

Original: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nice little boy named baby tuckoo...His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt."

Becomes, in a carelessly spellchecked version: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a Moscow coming down along the road and this Moscow that was coming down along the road met a nice little boy named baby cuckoo...His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face. He was baby cuckoo. The Moscow came down the road where Betty Burn lived: she sold lemon plait"

…creating a hugely different sense from the original. Had Joyce lived in an age where he typed his own books on a computer this may have been crucial, as he was rather myopic and may have missed the enforced changes.

New technology allows authors who are unable to write, type or even read to use dictation software. Certainly, in the past, texts were dictated to scribes, but 'electronic scribes' do not tire, become distracted, make spelling or grammatical errors, have an enormous vocabulary and once the software is bought, the scribe works unpaid. Once the item has been written it can then be copied with 100% accuracy, something no human scribe could do, consistently at least, and this accuracy is at a superhuman speed. 'Read-back' software extends this possibility to blind authors being able to 'proofread' by ear.

There is also a growing element of writings being produced by non-humans, Text-generators are programmed with the rules of English and given a vocabulary, and can produce apparently coherent text with no human involvement: for example "A large proportion of the interface communication adds over-riding performance constraints to system compatibility testing" is actually written by a computer (and means nothing, but passes for pretty zippy business English- try it out on your office manager….). This example was taken from Wilson, R.A. Coincidance. Scottsdale, Arizona: New Falcon. 1991, p 209-213, but there is lots of it out there nowadays. At least earlier historians did not have the problem of deciding whether a text was written by a human being or not.

Survival: transient media
Permanence is an important issue. Given a deal of luck in avoiding fire, war, fundamentalist zeal, beetles and damp, a book can survive 1000 years or more. An e-text, although ethereal on a screen, needs a physical substrate. These are far from indestructible. Electronic media may actually be more transient than paper; e.g. a CD may only last 50-100 years. There are also inferior disks which may decompose after only 10 years. Unlike books, CDs are subject to serious data damage from impact, heat, abrasion, and prolonged exposure to sunlight. Magnetic media (such as floppy disks, hard disks, back-up tapes) are even more vulnerable; being damaged by magnetism, dust, electrical surges or (the modern equivalent of the 'book-eating beetle') computer viruses. Equally, a small CD that may hold 500 volumes' worth of information is easily misplaced.

With continuing rapid developments in IT, higher capacity and more robust storage media will be developed, but this may mean that CD readers eventually become obsolete; rendering surviving CDs mute. Imagine the anguished howls of a future researcher, perhaps in only 100 years time, when newly discovering a dusty archive of CDs that cannot be read!

The dependence on electricity and certain computer formats to give e-texts life is ultimately limiting. This is already found with texts written on early personal computers, e.g. BBC format, which were developed only around 20 years ago. In the computer world this obsolescence is accelerating. The concept of 'ancient', dead and undecipherable languages being perhaps 30 years old must seem incredible to analogue historians who might still be able to coherently read, for example Sumerian, which is 4000 years older than that.

Salvage: you can't re-bind a disc
Analogue book conservators have a variety of preservation and repair techniques; however once a disc is damaged it may be impossible or far too costly to save. Recently the FBI managed to painstakingly reconstruct a floppy disk that had been broken open and shredded with scissors, but this took hundreds of hours of effort to salvage only a few pages of text, and was only undertaken to provide evidence of a motive for an otherwise untenable murder case.

Spread: unpredictable redistributions
No-one knows how many copies of any one e-text may exist. Download sites may keep automatic count of copies taken, but the copied text can be circulated informally after that, and perhaps at an exponential level to copies taken from source. E-texts may also be edited, altered, annotated etc on route; rather like an electronic form of 'Chinese whispers'. Thus e-text becomes a more fluid medium than print, in much the same way that early hand-copied religious manuscripts were altered during successive copyings by bored or tired monks.

Suppression: you can't burn an e-book
In the 20th Century, state-controlled book-burning occurred, on both sides of the Atlantic. The controversial Jewish psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich was unfortunate enough to have his books destroyed by both the Nazis and the Americans in successive decades. On a more practical level the US Library of Congress have an escalating problem of space. They receive two print copies of every book published in the US, and simply do not have the room for storage, so many books are unbound, microfilmed to preserve the content, and the resulting analogue debris discarded. Similarly the UK Public Records Office with over 100 miles of analogue shelving, has to make hard and often ruthless decisions on what documents to keep and what to dispose of.

An e-text on the net is "nowhere" geographically and legally. This can lead to exposure of official secrets and contentious materials by using this legal loophole to transcend physical boundaries. It can also be used to breach national copyrights by pirating a book from another country, even though readers in countries where the copyright is enforced can still access the 'illegal' e-book.

e.g.; Margaret Murray's books are available on the sacred texts archive despite being covered by UK copyright. It is said that the victors, i.e. those who control the printing presses, write history. Nowadays virtually anyone, 'winner' or 'loser' can publish to the web (depending on who controls access to the phone lines, of course). The American Civil Liberties Union website is one of many promoting e-books of previously banned, usually political, titles, and despite several recent high-profile legal cases, international e-law is notoriously difficult to enforce.

Space and Sensibility
An encyclopaedia on CD weighs a few grammes, occupies a few millimeters on a shelf and can be carried in a pocket. The same analogue version may be 26 weighty volumes, filling two metres of shelf space. The analogue encyclopaedia has an entire volume of indexing, and contains only text and still pictures. The CD has hyperlink cross-referencing and multimedia effects (sounds, animations, 3-D 'walkthrough' effects, diagrams, video) that can achieve more educational results in an hour than perhaps a day of poring over the traditional printed volumes. This may ultimately affect the very processes by which we actually think, by making reading a pan-sensory and, importantly, non-linear experience. Children now being brought up to see electronic media as a primary source of knowledge may eventually regard analogue books as rather quaint and outmoded, compared to electronic hypertext in much the same way that perhaps adults in the 21st Century view wax cylinder recordings in comparison to music CDs. The coming historical impact of a non-analogue literate generation cannot be anything but shattering.

Senses: nothing smells like a library
Text on screen is 'sterile'; and even a printed copy of an e-book is not "a book"; it is an homogenous, unbound sheaf of paper, with no emotional capital invested. Emotional capital? The 'retail experience' of finding a book in a shop, browsing it and deciding to purchase it. The internet will never have this element. Bibliophiles derive less aesthetic, emotional, tactile and olfactory satisfaction from having a shelf-full of computer disks and printouts compared to a room full of bound volumes. Equally, authors tend to be far more emotionally attached to analogue versions of their work than if it were on-line. Internet-only publishers have (unsurprisingly) been derisory about their analogue competitors' 'legacy publications', however it seems that the oft-predicted boom of Internet publishing, which would rapidly make e-books and e-magazines essential, is at least premature, if not wrong.

As mentioned above, readers are resisting the changes. Whether printed books will ever cease production is debatable. Despite the Internet and e-publishing revolution, one of the best-known internet companies is the bookshop Amazon who take online orders to supply analogue books all over the world by terrestrial mail. There is still a thriving market in analogue material, especially if it is rare- a first edition Crowley will still go for lots of money at auction, even if the same text is freely available on the internet.

With rapid changes of technology, methods of information storage will change. Analogue books will still be written and printed, much as stone monuments will still be engraved with words that will be of historical importance. However there is a burgeoning expansion of electronic data that must be addressed by historians and indeed all academics, in order to give a balanced and holistic view of their respective fields. As more material is placed on the internet many 'sacred cows' of historical and other perspectives will be challenged; and fall to new, better information.

A Luddite view will lead to stagnation and ultimately the 'becalming' of some areas of research. Adaptation to include e-research may involve the learning and application of new techniques. Many of these are merely extensions of skills probably already possessed, such as typing.

The increase in availability of information may be other than entirely a good thing; taking a line from Kate's essay on Liberalism link freedom of information and equal accessibility of knowledge for all allows equal access to divisive materials encouraging race-hate and the like. This must be weighed against geographical and financial liberation for all researchers who need not be within a physical library in order to work. This equality could be the stuff of dreams for many a Utopian and Marxist idealist, and the possibilities for advancement and sharing of knowledge are immense.

Although there is current research on the internet and society being done via Oxford University, only a history of the internet communications revolution; probably to be e-published on some as yet unknown and startling new media, in maybe 2050, will tell us what really happens.

Dammit, I'll be dead by then…….


Similarly to other academic essays which I have re-jigged for occult e-books, a lot of the referencing has been removed for brevity.